Students of all ages last week joined their courageous and eloquent peers from Parkland, Florida in protest. They are showing us that the damage from school shootings is not only the tragic loss of young lives, but also the pervasive fear that exists in modern American schools, where “active shooter” drills embed terror the way that “duck and cover” once did.
As the anger and frustration of this school shooting generation resonate across the country, these students give us hope that maybe, just maybe, their growing national movement will finally loosen the literally life-crushing grip that the gun lobby has on our politics.
But while the debate over how to end school shootings is essential and overdue, we must remember that this is not the first time that gun violence in Florida has sparked a national movement — and that the concerns of that movement have not yet been fully addressed.
In 2012, a brave and eloquent group of young black Floridians calling themselves the Dream Defenders staged extensive and persistent protests of the state’s so-called “Stand Your Ground” law. The law allows the use of deadly force in public when used in self-defense — even if retreating to avoid using force is possible — and became a focus of outrage after George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teenager. The hashtag #blacklivesmatter was first used to organize following Zimmerman’s acquittal, planting the seed for the national movement that followed.
The Black Lives Matter protests captured the anger and frustration of communities that have long endured an unequal risk of violence and the injustice of discriminatory public policies, like stop and frisk, that often increase rather than mitigate that risk. With repeated exposure to shocking videos of unjust killings followed by little accountability, many white Americans unfamiliar with that reality developed a new, visceral connection to the fear and pain that many people of color have always lived with.
For some, it was their first encounter with “the talk” that parents feel compelled to have with their black children. For others, the stories of Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, and Walter Scott gave new depth to the phrase “driving while black.” But far too many others remained unaccepting of the lessons that were being offered. It is a failure of empathy that has lethal consequences on a daily basis.
The Dream Defenders were unable to marshal the political power necessary to get Stand Your Ground repealed in Florida. To the contrary, the Florida legislature, pressed by the same pro-gun special interests that today are calling for arming teachers, added a requirement for prosecutors to negate the defense at a pretrial hearing, creating a unique level of protection for those accused.
In the years immediately after the original law was passed in 2005, the number of homicides ruled legally justifiable in Florida increased by 75%, according to a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine — and, crucially, defendants were more likely to go free if the victim was black.
Across America, even with the steady increase in school shootings, the statistics surrounding gun deaths remain constant: the majority of the country’s mass shootings are acts of domestic violence, and at least 52% of women killed by guns are killed by an intimate partner or family member; 62% of firearms deaths are suicides; and roughly 50% of the victims of homicides where a gun was used are black men.
Addressing the diversity of harms created by guns will require a complex suite of interventions tailored to the specific risks. Yes, in virtually all instances part of the solution is limiting access to weapons for those most likely to do harm. But limiting mass school shootings also requires understanding and addressing the disaffection of the mostly white young men who carry them out, and the psychology of fame and repetition that contributes to their actions.
Decreasing deaths from handguns will involve technological innovations to make guns safer and more traceable, programs to decrease the general risk of violent conflict, and improved interventions for those at risk of suicide. And reducing the use of excessive force by police will come with changes in training, policing practices, and standards for legal liability.
The common thread to all of these challenges is the collection of organizations that lobby to oppose virtually every technological and legislative innovation that might reduce the harm caused by guns. They have stood as a wall that has consistently deflected every tragedy-powered wave of protest.
I am hopeful that this new wave of student-led mobilization will finally breach that wall. Our country will be far better and safer for it. But if, together, we are able to create room for real innovations on gun safety, let’s not also repeat past mistakes. Let’s ensure that the communities that suffer the greatest toll from gun violence are integral to the development of solutions. As the movement looks forward to the March for Our Lives rallies against gun violence on March 24, let’s insist that black lives matter, too.